restricted access Ashes Taken for Fire: Aesthetic Modernism and the Critique of Identity (review)
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Reviewed by
Kevin Bell. Ashes Taken for Fire: Aesthetic Modernism and the Critique of Identity. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2007. x + 252 pp.

Bell's lucidly theoretical study engages a critique of the essentializing social system of identity on two levels. First, it shows that such a critique underwrites the project of Anglo American modernism. Moving deftly across British, American, and specifically African American texts; high-cultural texts and genre fiction; and regionalist and metropolitan fiction, Bell traces modernism's many-faceted effort to register the chaos and multiplicity of subjectivity and to challenge the instrumental language that straightjackets subjectivity in rigid identity categories. Second, Bell's study makes this critique part of a challenge to literary scholarship's continued investment in identity politics, which drives a focus on social realism, historical periodization, and linguistic denotation. Bell charges such scholarship with an inability to register the anti-identitarian politics of modernism and to recognize—theoretically and historically—the systematicity of the system of identity. In this broadest concern, Ashes Taken for Fire parallels recent political philosophies that interrogate the practical constraints of identity as well as affect theory and new materialism's focus on questions of materiality often overlooked in language-driven, poststructuralist accounts of subject formation.

Bell's study specifically investigates how modernism thematizes the conflict between an originary, fluid subjectivity whose sensorium bears "contravening material/cultural/historical inscriptions" (12) and the social "imperatives of positionality" (14) that pressure the subject to abandon the "experimentality of its own experience" in favor of an illusory social coherence and belonging (2). Bell argues that modernism not only understands this chaotic subjectivity as "a sphere of unbound improvisation and possibility," it works to develop an idiom that can capture this potential by making affective materiality the impetus for its stylistic colors, contours, fragments, [End Page 194] sounds, and silences. Ultimately, Bell contends that modernism identifies those subjects who live out their multiplicity as existing in a "zone of blackness" that signifies death, opacity, social abjection, and fugitivity from self-mastery (3). These resistant subjects—the anthropomorphic model of which, Bell argues, is racial blackness—internalize their exclusion from the "legislating zone of 'normativity'" and so are indifferent to social recognition (31). Formal modernism, Bell suggests, mirrors the threat of such indifference to cultural norms by enacting the "excess of meaning that over-burdens every term" by which characters announce their "completeness" (11). Bell's reading convincingly challenges critics who center modernism on a self-contained "I" removed from social reality, showing that modernist aesthetics refuses "to reduce itself to the neutralized function of mere representation" and instead locates transformative power in the body and its figuration (5). Modernism's anti-identitarian politics thus abrogates "any pretense to solution" and dislocates itself from "mythic continuity" and "affirmative belonging" (6).

Ashes Taken for Fire has three major parts. The first reexamines British literary impressionism—often seen as solipsistic—via Conrad's The Nigger of the "Narcissus" and Woolf's Jacob's Room, tracing how this movement mimes the elusiveness of the subjective void and the construction of social identity over it. Conrad's novel, Bell argues, uses the interactions between racially black characters, Donkin and James Wait, and their white shipmates to read two styles of social dealings with chaotic subjectivity. Donkin preys on his shipmates by exchanging a performance of social abjection for material assistance, while Wait, by contrast, remains utterly unresponsive to every "applied designation by which he would be interpellated" (49), leading his shipmates to both fear and desire him as the elimination of the difference against which they define themselves. Through Jacob's Room, Bell underscores the role of modernist idiom in embracing such a fractured subjectivity. The shifting focalization and free indirect discourse through which Woolf depicts protagonist Jacob Flanders stages subjective disorder and opacity, even though Jacob himself—acting as an elite white male—works to identify and thereby limit others who dwell happily in a realm of chaotic subjectivity.

The second part of Bell's study maps American modernism, both regional and metropolitan, and more and less canonical, in relation to this realm, showing through chapters on Faulkner's Light in August and Nathaneal...